In a Perfect World
My forehead is pressed to the small oval window when the Pyramids of Giza come into view. From so far overhead they remind me of the elementary school diorama I built from a shoe box and pictures cut from Grandma Irene’s National Geographic magazines. She kept the issues stacked in neat piles on a shelf in her closet and I remember how the older ones—from the sixties and seventies—listed the topics down the yellow spine: EGYPT OTTERS ALASKA’S GLACIERS BALLOONS. I’d found three issues with articles about Egypt, and even though the magazines were in pristine condition, Grandma didn’t mind me ruining the pages.
In all those photos, the pyramids seemed to stand in the middle of a vast golden sea of sand, but from this elevation, the outskirts of Cairo bump up against them in a way I would have
never expected. Through the hazy layer of smog that hangs over the city, everything is the same color as the desert—if there are trees down there, I can’t see them yet—and the Nile meanders through the middle like a dark ribbon.
“That island right there is where we’ll be living.” Mom touches her fingertip to the window as the plane begins its descent, but there are a few islands in the river and it doesn’t really matter which one she’s talking about. Instead I seek out soccer fields, backyard swimming pools, housing developments, thick green clumps of parks—anything that might make Cairo resemble Cleveland or Chicago or New York City. Might make Egypt seem less . . . foreign. Except when the flight attendant reminds us to fasten our seat belts for landing, she does it first in Arabic, then in English, reminding me that this city—our new home—is six thousand miles from the one we left behind.
Our new home.
I press a nervous palm against the metal buckle of the belt that’s been strapped across my lap for the better part of two days. Since we left Frankfurt nearly four hours ago. Since the eight-hour flight across the Atlantic from Newark. Since the two-hour hop from Cleveland.
This isn’t the first time I’ve flown—we take yearly trips to visit Uncle Mike and his family in the Florida Keys—but this journey has worn me down. I know I should be excited about
landing in a completely different country for the first time ever, but there is a toddler in 18B who won’t stop crying. The man sitting behind me keeps thumping the back of my seat every time he moves his legs.
And I can’t stop thinking about everything I’ve given up.
My summer plans were locked down. Hannah and I had been hired to work at one of the admissions gates at Cedar Point. Owen came up with a bucket list of things to do before graduation, like sneaking into the abandoned Prehistoric Forest at night to see the fake dinosaurs in the dark, tracking down the cemetery in Cleveland where an angel statue is said to weep, and going to the Renaissance fair dressed in costume. Also, my parents had already paid the deposit for soccer camp at Ohio State. For as long as I’ve been playing, my personal goal has been to make captain of the girls’ team in my senior year, but now there’s no chance of that happening. My not doing these things won’t stop the world from spinning, but that doesn’t mean I won’t miss them.
“I hate this part.” Mom grips both Dad’s hand and mine as the plane makes its final approach. It takes a certain level of fearlessness to relocate to a country where the government is not super-stable and the fear of terrorism is real, so it’s hard to believe my mother is afraid of flying. Still, I give her hand a gentle squeeze and watch out the window as the ground rushes up beneath us. The runway is in the desert, where all the colors
have faded to a singular dusty tan that stretches out to the horizon, and it feels as if our destination is nowhere at all.
The wheels bump, the brakes roar, and when it is clear we’ve landed without crashing, Mom releases her death grip. Her mouth spreads into an excited smile and her voice lifts a couple of octaves. “We’re here!”
• • •
A couple of weeks ago, Dad and I took the ferry to Kelleys Island to celebrate the end of school, a tradition he started when I was in kindergarten. Each year we spend one whole day circumnavigating the island on our bicycles, eating fried perch sandwiches at the Village Pump, and collecting stones from the state park beach on the north side. When I was little, I would gather as many stones as the basket on my bike could hold, so many that it made pedaling hard. Dad would suggest I lighten the load and made me live with the consequences when I refused. As I got older, he taught me how to wet the stones in the lake to bring out their true colors. It’s still hard not to overload my basket, but I’ve become more discerning with age. This year my haul was just one perfect stone flecked with pink and black quartz.
On the way back to the ferry landing at Marblehead, as we stood at the rail watching a couple of kids fling bread in the air for the gulls, Dad broke the news. “You know how your mom has always wanted to work for OneVision?”
OneVision is a nongovernment global health organization like Doctors Without Borders, except OneVision provides eye examinations and glasses to people in need, and eye surgeries to restore sight. For as long as I can remember, it has been Mom’s dream to work for OneVision, to help people see.
The wind whipped at my hair and I peeled a strand away from my mouth. “She said she would wait until I finish high school.”
“That was always the plan, but they need her now,” Dad said. “She’s been asked to establish a clinic in Cairo and she really wants to say yes.”
What about me?
I didn’t ask the question out loud because that would have made me sound like a spoiled brat. Even thinking it felt selfish. Soccer camp and high school bucket lists were much smaller dreams than OneVision, but that didn’t mean I didn’t still want them.
“What about you?” I asked instead.
Dad is the captain of an offshore tugboat that pushes a gas barge up and down the East Coast. He works on an alternating schedule—two weeks on, two weeks off—which hasn’t always been an easy way to live. Mom and I fall into a routine that gets disrupted whenever he comes home, and if anything important happens when he is away, Dad is not there for it. He’s spent
more than one Christmas at sea. He’s missed soccer games, gymnastics competitions, and birthday parties. It’s an unconventional way to be a family, but we manage.
“I have to keep my job,” he said.
“Can’t I just stay with you?”
“How would that work?”
“I’m seventeen,” I pointed out, but he gave me a look that even his Ray-Bans couldn’t hide. One that said there was no way my parents would even consider letting me stay home alone while Dad was at sea. “Okay, so maybe I could live with Grandma and Grandpa when you’re gone. Or Grandma Irene.”
His eyebrows lifted above the top of his sunglasses. “You’re telling me you would rather move to a retirement community filled with elder humans than to the cradle of civilization?”
“When you put it that way . . .”
“I know this is not how you imagined your senior year.” Dad dragged a hand up through his salt-and-pepper hair and I caught sight of my name inked in black around his wrist like a permanent bracelet. He’d gotten the tattoo when I was one day old, just after they filled out my birth certificate. “I get it. I really do. Flights to Cairo are going to eat my time and money, but I’m willing to make the sacrifice because it is important to your mom.”
“Are we going to sell the house?”
“The program requires a one-year commitment,” Dad said. “So we’ll rent out the house until we get back.”
The thought of someone else sleeping in my bed made me ache, starting in my heart and radiating out into the rest of my body. I blinked a few times, trying not to cry, but when my dad wrapped his arms around me, I came undone.
We’ve lived in the same pumpkin-orange bungalow on Finch Street for as long as I’ve been alive. As the ferry churned through the deep, shimmering blue of Lake Erie, I could not imagine living in another house in another city in another country. Even now, as our plane taxies down the runway toward the terminal in Cairo, I still can’t fully wrap my mind around it.
Dad stands in the aisle, pulling down our carry-on bags from the overhead compartment, and I inhale deeply, pushing against the tide of tears threatening to spill. There is no point in crying.
We are here.